By John Evans
Editor’s Note: Originally published at ChiefsSpin.com, republished here with permission.
This time of year, a lot of NFL teams are working their rookies into the lineup so that young players can gain valuable experience and/or prove they’re ready to contribute on the pro level. These guys aren’t usually fantasy mainstays, at least not yet, but the better gauge you have of their abilities, the more likely you are to benefit from their future breakout.
Speaking today, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak said that rookie WR Justin Hunter merits “even more” playing time after Sunday’s 6/109/1 stat-line against the reeling Raiders. He was on the field for about half of the Titans’ offensive snaps.
Keep an eye on Hunter. Considered one of the most athletically gifted prospects in the 2013 receiving class, in college he never really translated his impressive measurables (6’4, 196 lbs., 4.44 speed) into big box-scores. As a Tennessee Volunteer, Hunter’s lapses of concentration and uneven effort contributed, along with a torn ACL, to underwhelming numbers for such a physical specimen. Still, at the combine Hunter posted a 39.5 inch vertical jump and 36.5 broad jump — the best marks among receivers.
A second-round pick of the Titans, Hunter had a couple of big touchdown catches in Weeks 3 and 4 and quickly surpassed Kenny Britt on the depth chart. With Damian Williams’ lingering quad injury, Hunter has been getting more snaps as the third receiver behind Kendall Wright and Nate Washington. The coming-out party was this Sunday in Oakland, when Hunter caught six spirals for 109 yards and a touchdown. Hunter juked two defensive backs out of their silver-and-black socks to score on a 54-yard catch and run.
While making the Raiders’ secondary look silly isn’t exactly the measuring stick of greatness, there are other signs that Hunter may be arriving as a fantasy asset. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been more-than-competent, putting up 268.6 yards per game and a five-to-zero TD-to-INT ratio. So long as the Amish Rifle avoids swirling winds and snowy fields, which has historically torpedoed his play going back to his days in Buffalo, the Titans’ passing game should keep clicking. A Week 14 date in Denver is the only potential bad-weather game left on their 2013 schedule, and you can expect Tennessee to be throwing in that one.
Hunter drew criticism in Matt Waldman’s essential Rookie Scouting Portfolio for “consistency, decision-making and effort” and Mike Mayock said “the questions are drops and physicality.” Hunter is slightly built for his height and may have joined the wrong team for receivers needing to grow up — Kenny Britt never did — but there’s no question that he’s fast enough to test defenses and possesses the leaping ability to win jump balls. Those are the traits of a team’s No. 1 receiver and in Kendall Wright, the Titans have an ideal No. 2.
Wright hasn’t been the big-play threat many expected him to be coming out of Baylor, but he’s been an extremely steady possession receiver on short and intermediate routes. In fantasy terms, Wright’s touchdown drought (just 2 all year) has depressed his value, but for sheer volume of catches he is a low-end WR2 in PPR leagues. If Hunter can mature across from Wright, Tennessee will have tandem receivers who complement each other very well. Whether their signal caller is Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker or another quarterback entirely, this passing game could become a pretty steady source of fantasy points.
Can Justin Hunter reach his potential? Let’s just hope the comparisons to Roy Williams go no farther than body type.
After writing light-hearted sports columns in college, John Evans covered a variety of sports for The Olympian, a daily newspaper. While chasing Hollywood dreams for most of the last decade, he discovered that the entertainment industry loves fantasy football! For three seasons and counting, John has co-hosted The Xs & Ys Podcast with The Fantasy Football Girl and he now writes for ChiefsSpin.com. Follow him on Twitter @Evansjo5.